Tag Archives: History

History is what happens while you’re making plans

Yesterday on Twitter, someone posted in a thread that: “In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” While attributed in this case and quite frequently to Franklin Roosevelt, I’m not surprised to find this morning that the attribution appears spurious. I have not spent all that many years personally engaged in politics, but bumbling seems much more typical than something happening as a result of planned activity.*

That seems to apply to… a lot, actually, as the past year has been demonstrating in big ways.

It isn’t just that no one seems to have a credible theory of the case. Republican elites probably come closest, with their states-and-courts strategy for hollowing out democracy—while abhorrent it’s a strategy and it’s working—but even they seem to have a tiger by the tail. This looks like a disciplined, functioning strategy in comparison with most other political activity, much of which is ritual people just repeat because humans are that way. Calls, postcards, zingers online, letters to the editor; dance the ghost dance, shake the magic gourds, chant the word “bipartisan” again and again and again and again.

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The Beer Hall Putsch

On Sept. 13, I wrote this in my 2020 campaign/election/events diary:

Seems real likelihood that future is either

1. beerhall putsch

2. reichstag fire

My thinking was that Trump appeared to be on the way to rejection by voters, and would plainly attempt to sabotage democracy in some way; it might end up a failed farce(Beer Hall Putsch) like many Trump projects or it might deliver America wholly into authoritarianism (Reichstag fire).

I hesitated to give any public expression to this thought, owing to anxiety about which event was in the making. That hesitation continued after the election, even once it seemed pretty firm that Biden had met the conditions to “win.” The relevant institutional machinery is full of trapdoors, after all, and while Trump’s efforts to reject democracy have been a farce, pratfalls on an unsafe set can still be unsafe.

Eventually, I realized that oh, huh, then this is America’s Beer Hall Putsch, and would be even if somehow it were to “succeed.” The real story is that our situation is that far gone, it wouldn’t take much for even a halfassed-farce coup to succeed.

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Human progress as economic bubble

During recent attempts at some deep thinking about politics, civilization and history, I have pondered the long term and how present dysfunction might be little more than “reversion to the mean.”

An expectation of general progress, or of a fair society which lasts, seems hard to square with the long arc of history. My own impression is that after developing basic civilization thousands of years ago, humanity did not really “advance” much until the past 300 or 400 years.

The advances since then have included some spectacular transformations, at least for lots of people. Long lifespans, food to eat, medicine which works, flourishing science and arts.

Yet the systems powering industrial civilization are ecologically unsustainable—that’s just a plain fact—and while its product is an anomaly within human history, to date, resource burnout is not. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse explored a pattern of civilizations building prosperity upon unsustainable foundations.

What if all industrial civilization—powered by toxic fossil fuel combustion and internally resistant to alternatives despite many decades’ notice of the need—is just one more unsustainable bubble?

Yesterday, Slate reported on some similar speculation by David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth.

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The 1990s: Some things we missed

After nagging at me for years, a 1996 comic book’s suggestion that the 1990s would prove to be a lost opportunity, for humanity, feels like it at last warrants a serious evaluation.

A month after summoning myself to get around to that, though, I wonder now if the moment of opportunity is relatively illusory. It seems like both I, personally, and the concentric circles of groups to which I relate should have done more. Should have responded to a relatively crisis-free and prosperous moment by pursuing ambitious reforms, and deep cultural and institutional renewal. It seems like we might indeed have launched a golden age had more of us been more generous, and more active in trying to solve problems bigger than our own personal concerns.

But it occurs to me that this is less of a special moment than a regular failing of human history. Many eras “might have been the prologue to a golden age” if people were more generous and more engaged in reform.

I look at e.g. today’s high school student activists and compare them with myself and most peers, immersed as we were in comparatively trivial pursuits. We should have done better, attempted more at least. But I’m not sure what prompt we overlooked. I was concerned by problems that seemed to threaten my personal life directly; arguably so are today’s students except that e.g. those problems now include heavily armed crazies shooting them.

Perhaps older people should have been more responsible, perhaps leaders of some sort really did drop the ball. After tossing around various possibilities for how, though, many still seem applicable to broad human history not just the 1990s.

I think it’s possible, though, that a few fundamental errors of the 1990s do represent a “wrong turn” particular to that era. Ironically, it has also occurred to me that another pop-culture artifact that wasn’t even trying to be especially serious might sum them up. From Austin Powers, 1997:

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First alumnus to be Iowa State president…

Iowa State University announced a new president this past week.

Others have written more insightful comments about the choice of Wendy Wintersteen than I can. But I did want to report on my own small contribution to the broader historical record; that contribution was simply maintenance, but it seems that such maintenance is needed.

In perusing the online reactions to this announcement, I happened upon a story by the Iowa Informer. I was vexed to see Wintersteen described as the first Iowa State alumnus to become its president.

I knew for a fact that Iowa State’s 10th president, James Hilton, was an alumnus.

Happily, the Informer was responsive on Twitter and updated the story. I remain a bit resistant to their assertion that “alumnus” is gender-neutral… but they did change the story, not only to use the modern, gender-neutral “alum” but to describe Wintersteen as “the second” such. Cheers.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to take their word that “multiple sources were saying she was the first.” It wasn’t correct, but I’m aware that such historical record “resets” happen. In fact, this is the second time I have been involved in pushing back against one which involved a central-Iowa university…

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